There are very few things or sights in the world that will make me stop in my tracks. I am very rarely caught for words, thinking about what I could write or jot down later. The concentration camps Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) stunned me. While visiting them and getting a tour of the locations only took up a very small amount of time in our weekend trip to Krakow, they will definitely stay with me forever.
Myself and a group of friends spent three days in Krakow, a beautiful city in Southern Poland. I am going to write more about what we did in a later post. Today I will focus on the haunting day we had seeing for ourselves the horrible conditions that Jews and POWs had to live in, as well as the awful ways in whcih they perished. I am so glad that I got to see the camps but we were not a happy group after our day in the west of Krakow.
After flying into Poland late Thursday night, we only had time for a relatively short sleep before rising again. Keli payed extra for private taxis for us on our tourist activities which was a Godsend. We could nap in the car or just sit there in horrible silence, wishing we were still in the land of nod.
Shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, an hour drive west of Krakow, there was a light mood in the air. We got some coffees into us and there were a lot of other groups, mainly couples, chatting and joking. I feel like maybe we were all holding onto the last bit of happiness from our morning. I know plenty of people who had taken the same tour already and the consensus was clear: you will not be in a good mood afterwards.
Our tour-guide Nina brought us through the buildings in the main camp of Auschwitz. The sprig in our step from ten minutes beofre was immediately wiped out. We walked through many buildings, Nina always in our ear via a radio explaining the purpose of each building and the atrocities that happened inside.
We passed the infamous, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, sign, which means ‘Work will set you free’. This would become a theme of the tour. Although I studied history in secondary school and loved it, I didn’t know or must have forgotten that the Nazis made the Jews and other prisoners believe that they were only in the camp to work and that through this hard work they would eventually be set free. They were trying to exterminate a race of people so they could not cause panic. They told the people en route to the gas chambers that they were being cleaned before their work was to begin. They were told to write their name on their suitcases and to tie their shoelaces together so that they would be easier to find after their cleaning. Little did they know that they were soon to be murdered.
We saw many haunting images that day but the ones that stood out to me will be etched in my memory forever. Mounds of human hair stacked all the way to the back of the wall, a good ten metres away. Mainly brown with flecks of grey, this horrifying testament to the human lives lost over that five year black mark in human history had a profound effect on me. I saw the faces, the fear becoming more and more apparent on the faces of the grown ups while the children were maybe wondering why these strange men were cutting their hair. Maybe some of them realised then and there that they weren’t going to survive this shower.
Countless pictures lined the corridor of another building. Dates of birth, internment and death underlined each picture, sometimes accompanied by the occupation of the prisoner. Monks, teachers, sculptors, priests, officers and homemakers were butcherred alike with no discrimation apart from the fact that they were Jewish or less than the German image of perfection.
Some of the prisoners were children; one boy was 15 when he died in the gas chambers while another girl had just turned 17 before she perished. These two buildings opened my eyes to the reality of the genocide of the Jewish people. Before, it was only a chapter in a history book or the subject matter of an emotional movie. Now, I know that human lives were not lost but taken. As Nina said when asked how long she has been giving tours for and why, it is important that future generations kno what happened there and that it may never be repeated.
We saw Birkenau, a ten minute drive from the first camp, which is the version of the concentration camps that people would definitely recognise. It has featured as landscape shots and opening sequences for hundreds of movies. The train tracks that ferried millions to their deaths still stand there, while an actual kettle car that held prisoners on their way to their doom has been preserved and sits on the tracks.
This section of the most famous death camp used during the war didn’t affect me as much as Auschwitz. I will say that the ruins of one of the original crematoriums used to incinerate carcasses and evidence of what was going on was tough to take, the sight of the human hair, names on the suitcases and the several red shoes mixed in with the brown and black brogues really brought home the human involvement for me. I know that people might wonder how I never really registered how many lives were lost. I did and I do know that that is an awful amount of people. In this day and age it is so easy to desensitize ourselves to tragedies and loss of life. It is also easy to transfer that sense of detachment back to past genocides and really put distance between ourselves and anything that makes us uncomfortable. That is why it is important to visit these places and empathise and realise.
A monument to the dead lies at the very back of the camp. Instead of some last word on the camp and my experience, I will just leave the message, written in a number of languages at the base of the piece.
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY,
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED
ABOUT ONE AND A HALF
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN,
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE